Natural Products Insider

SEP-OCT 2017

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86 INSIDER September/October 2017 An investigation two years ago by the offi ce of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman highlighted the advantages and limitations of DNA barcoding as a tool to identify plant material in herbal supplement products. Susan Murch, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry with The University of British Columbia, is among Schneiderman's critics who felt his offi ce jumped the gun when he sent cease-and-desist letters to four U.S. major retailers of herbal supplements. In a 2015 announcement that was widely reported in the national media, New York authorities disclosed that only 21 percent of test results from store brand herbal supplements confi rmed DNA from plants declared on the products' labels. Schneiderman relied on DNA barcoding, which is used to verify the identity of organic materials using reference sequences of DNA. "I think that DNA barcoding using the regions that are currently available is too untested, too unspecifi c, too prone to errors and too unreliable to serve as the foundation for legal action," Murch told INSIDER in a 2016 email. "[Schneiderman] should have had better data from several orthogonal tests by several different labs before he made his announcement." Despite such criticism, DNA barcode technology is evolving and playing a growing role in the botanical supplements industry. For example, in September 2016, Schneiderman announced an agreement with Nature's Bounty (formerly known as NBTY Inc.). The manufacturer agreed to use new quality control (QC) measures for herbal supplements. As part of the pact, Nature's Bounty agreed to phase in DNA barcoding on herbal ingredients over two years. GNC Holdings Inc. and Nature's Way reached similar agreements with the New York attorney general. None of the retailers granted requests for interviews to discuss their use of DNA testing. A representative of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) acknowledged Schneiderman's probe harmed some companies, but maintained potential benefi ts stemming from the investigation also may have resulted. "When one is challenged, then you become more alert," remarked Maged Sharaf, Ph.D., chief science offi cer of AHPA, in an interview. "You become more careful. You tend to do more. And you tend to provide better service and better products." Added Sharaf: "Overall, the industry is benefi tting from this, not only because … we're doing more, but also because … now we have another technique that we need to optimize and improve." Stefan Gafner, Ph.D., chief science offi cer of the American Botanical Council (ABC), suggested DNA technology is most appropriate for testing fresh raw material, and he said it also could be extremely useful for dried and powdered crude materials. He described how DNA technology is complementary to other testing methods in the botanical industry. While "macroscopic, microscopic or chemical analysis may provide evidence for the presence of unknown species," DNA is advantageous in that it may identify species, he explained in an email. "Its main advantage and use is to verify the identity of crude raw materials, but it could be possibly used to look for bacterial and fungal contamination, as well," Gafner said. Paula Brown, Ph.D., director of the British Columbia Institute of Technology's Natural Health and Food Products Research Group, said the simplest way to confi rm the identity of a botanical is through macroscopic tests, such as having a qualifi ed person examine the color of the plant material and smell the botanical. The diagnostic features needed for macroscopic and microscopic tests may disappear when plant materials are highly processed, Brown observed, giving supplement manufacturers "little recourse other than to use a chemical-based analytical test. "The fact is the nature of the ingredient dictates the nature of the test(s) that must be employed to ensure the specifi cation for identity is met," she said in a 2016 email to INSIDER, responding to questions after she spoke at a conference on DNA testing hosted by the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA). Experts said DNA barcoding may fail to verify the identity of a plant species because the DNA didn't survive during the extraction or manufacturing process. As Gafner observed, the manufacturing process may result in degraded or eliminated DNA. "The more processed an ingredient is," Gafner said, "the less likely it is to fi nd suitable DNA for authentication." Supply Chain Regulations DNA barcode technology is evolving and playing a growing role in the botan ical supplements industry, providing an additional tool to verify the identity of herbal ingredients. Despite purported flaws in an herbal supplements investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the probe caused the industry to be more vigilant about its testing methods. The limitations of DNA barcoding underscore that a company testing plant species and ingredients should abide by certain criteria—regardless of the testing method used. Despite Limitations, DNA Barcoding Playing Growing Role in Herbal Supplement Indust ry by Josh Long INSIDER's Take The bottom line, experts suggest, is that DNA barcoding is not a panacea for the herbal supplements industry.

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